Freelance Alliance Spotlight: Russ Thorne

What freelance services do you offer?

I'm a freelance journalist, editor and (occasionally) photographer. I'm fairly versatile but my strengths are travel and lifestyle features, as well as education and writing for young people.

How long have you been freelancing and what did you do before you became a freelancer?

I've been freelance for nearly a year. Before that I worked for a contract publisher for seven years, where I was editor of a number of titles as well as the in-house photographer.

What triggered your decision to go freelance?

I took a career break in 2008 to get some (but not enough!) travelling out of my system. When I came back I got an office-based job but quickly realised that style of working just wasn't what I wanted to do at that stage – I really wanted more independence and variety, so I thought it was time to give the freelance life a try.

Being on your own, are there any difficult gaps to fill, knowledge or skills wise?

I find new gaps in my skills and knowledge every day. Like anyone with a head for words, I lost the bit of the brain that can handle figures a long time ago; luckily I have a maths loving partner and an accountant or two in the family who can help me out!

Self-promotion, website building and generally getting the word out about my services is something I know I need to improve on, as well. It's tricky to do because it feels like time I should be spending writing or pitching; the guilt creeps in, however irrationally...

What were your goals when you started your business? Have they changed?

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The goal was pretty simple: persuade someone, anyone, to pay me for writing. That hasn't really changed, but I'm trying to diversify a bit now. When I started I focused on writing for young people and the education market, as that was my background; now I'm trying to branch out into lifestyle features, travel writing (my real passion) and a bit of marketing copy, as well as keeping my skills sharp on the editorial side.

Ideally I'd like to get to the stage where my journalism and editing work will be paying the bills sufficiently to let me work on some fiction in the background; I don't ever expect to get paid for that, but it's something I love.

Were there any crisis points early on? Any moments when you wondered if the pressure of making your business a financial success outweighed the benefits of independence?

I still have crisis points every day, or week, particularly as I'm still relatively new to the business! It's impossible to understand the terror of not knowing where the next paycheck is coming from until you're sat at the computer on a grey Tuesday morning (I've always found Tuesdays oddly dispiriting) with no emails, no pitches out, and no prospects on the horizon. But there's no better motivational tool than a precarious bank balance.

What are the best mistakes you’ve made? (i.e. those you’ve learned valuable lessons from.)

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There are two so far. Committing myself to too much is the first one: taking on every assignment, regardless of conflicting deadlines, and leaving myself no margin of error. I was promptly flattened by illness and couldn't make a deadline, which threw all my schedules out and I spent a fraught period catching up, working late and rising early. The lesson, I hope, is that I'll be realistic about job timescales and my own capacity from this point on (well, a bit more realistic; we all love the thrill of an implausible deadline, I reckon).

The other lesson actually comes from the job I had before turning freelance, but it definitely applies: trust your instincts and accept your limitations. My instincts told me I wouldn't be any good as a technical copywriter, but I tried to make myself into one anyway. It didn't work – my strengths lie in different

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directions. Now I've learned that lesson, it helps me focus and do good work in the fields I enjoy.

What is your most triumphant moment so far?

It's actually climbing a volcano and sledging down it. Nothing to do with freelancing, but it was such a joy that I'll take any opportunity to bang on about it. Everyone should try it once.

Looking back on your freelancing career now, is there anything that you would do differently?

It's hard to have the wisdom of hindsight at this early stage, but I do wish I'd got my self-promotion sorted right at the start, including a personal website – which I still don't have. Now that I'm quite busy writing it's even harder to make time for it. And I would have asked for more advice and help from friends and colleagues sooner, instead of thinking I had to work it all out for myself; it's not necessary. We're all in this together.

What things do you find personally rewarding and satisfying as a freelancer?

Nothing's better than seeing a piece you're happy with in print. That little jolt of pleasure has never faded; nor has hearing that someone has enjoyed a piece you wrote. Taking the time to research and write a feature (or book) is immensely rewarding when you see the end result – I'm old fashioned like that, I'll never get tired of holding and flicking through books and magazines.

What are the rewards, risks, and trade-offs?

The reward is that you can never be late for work, and the commute is always easy when you work in your own living room. But in return for that you need a higher degree of self-discipline and motivation; there's a risk that with no-one there to crack the whip you won't get on with things. But I've developed a pretty good routine that avoids that: separate clothes for work, music that helps me concentrate, getting up early with my girlfriend; it all helps.

Conversely, there's a risk that you never stop. Recently I've had plenty of work, which I'm enormously grateful for, and it's hard to switch off when you're in charge of your own schedule. Weekends don't exist for me any more, and it's tempting to spend all my evenings working as well; but that way lies madness. It's just as important to have a day off!

But the biggest trade off is that for all your independence, you're sat at home

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alone. It's ironic that a profession requiring such an understanding of people should mean you spend a lot of time locked away from them, hammering at the keys. I miss watercooler banter and the odd few minutes chatting with colleagues; but Twitter does help, and I have a part-time job a few hours a week that takes care of the social aspect (as well as providing a financial safety net while I get more established).

What have you been working on recently?

I've just finished a travel feature on India for Real Travel magazine, which I thoroughly enjoyed writing, and I had a piece in The Independent a few weeks ago. I've also completed a book on tattoo art for Quintet Publishing, due out in the next month or so; I'm working on a follow-up book on piercings for them now. I've had great fun working on the books – the research has been an adventure in itself!

To contact Russ or to see more of his work please see his Freelance Alliance profile.

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Mar 1, 2010
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